The Strange Persistence of Sketch Comedy

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The Strange Persistence of Sketch Comedy

A sketch is a sketch—this much we can say for sure. Much in the way a poem is made a poem by its own intrinsic poemness, sketch comedy exists in a realm largely free of formal constraint. A sketch should be short, though some are quite long. It should be simple, though many are complex. It contains more structure than improv, though it may be little more than a retro-scripted scene. It erects a fourth wall absent in stand-up, though it may tear that wall down. It should, above all, be funny, and still the best are often deeply serious. Sketch as we might recognize it, which dates back to the vaudeville era, is older than film and television. Yet the form feels much younger, its definition more fluid, its principles scarcely codified beyond the stalwarts of gameplay and heightening—axioms frequently disregarded by exceptional players. This probably has something do with the form’s origins (and continued existence) in live performance—what makes a good sketch onstage at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre falls increasingly flat onscreen. Sketch is caught between these two worlds: beholden on one hand to funny dialogue and emphatic performance, on the other to subtlety in production, performance and storytelling alike. This tension is unique to the form—no TV writer must learn how to write TV, then learn how to write TV for TV—and has arrested sketch’s growth into a sophisticated visual medium until pretty much the last ten years. The internet, with its proliferation of platforms and splintering of audiences, is heavily responsible, but that’s only half the story. The other half is a broader cultural embrace of sketch comedy—indeed, comedy itself—as a serious art form on par with film and narrative television.

In the beginning was the proscenium. Sketch on American TV began as a natural extension of sketch on American stages, with variety shows like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour finding large audiences in the 1950s. These programs, like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in the late ‘60s and ‘early 70s, adopted the model carried on by Saturday Night Live today—a medley of music, monologue and sketch recorded live (or live-to-tape, in Laugh-In’s case) before a studio audience. Things got a bit more interesting in the ‘90s, when HBO and then CBS imported Kids in the Hall from Canadian television. Kids was quickly joined by In Living Color, The State, and the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show in a growing crop of pre-taped sketch shows with the oddball sensibility that defines so much contemporary narrative comedy. They generally found their own niches in cable networks, a trend that holds true today. Though Fox sustained MadTV for a good 14 years—and launched a new sketch show, Party Over Here, last month—no other broadcast network could compete with the primetime behemoth of SNL. ABC’s Dana Carvey Show lasted seven weeks; Fox’s The Sketch Show, starring Paul F. Tompkins and Kaitlin Olson, lasted four. Even cable sketch shows in the ‘90s and early oughts tanked left and right, despite a clear hunger for sketch evidenced by Comedy Central’s (and then E!’s) relentless airing of SNL reruns. This stands in stark contrast to our current state of affairs, where pretty much every major network—even the History channel!—offers original short form comedy. What changed?

Dan Pasternack, a writer and producer who’s spent his career at the front lines of sketch and narrative comedy, sees a few turning points. He’s the head of Big Beach TV, where he recently produced the Comedy Central web series New Timers—the first foray into (relatively) long form by the acclaimed New York sketch group Good Cop Great Cop. (The duo has since signed a script deal with Comedy Central based on the web series.) Pasternack came to Big Beach from IFC, where he executive produced Portlandia and developed Comedy Bang! Bang!, among other titles. Looking back over the last twenty years—and he is quick to clarify that innovation is identifiable only in hindsight—Pasternack cites two factors that gave way to our contemporary sketch climate: the rise of alternative sensibilities and filmic production.

“I think the current era of short form comedy was very influenced by Mr. Show,” he said. “I think what Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] did was bring this alternative sensibility to the fore. It was shot like a live multi-cam sketch show, but the writing and performance was very meta—it was self-referential, it presumed the audience was in on the joke, I think to a greater extent than more popular sketch at the time. I think the other big influence was the Lonely Island, who I think really revolutionized the way Saturday Night Live would do sketch. Even though there had been filmed pieces from the beginning—with people like Albert Brooks, Walter Williams, Tom Schiller—I really think the Lonely Island guys were the first digital short filmmakers the show really embraced.”

It’s easy to trace Mr. Show’s lineage across the landscape of contemporary sketch, whether directly—Scott Aukerman, BJ Porter, Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Dino Stamatopoulos—or indirectly—Bob Odenkirk more or less dropped Tim and Eric on Adult Swim’s doorstep, who brought on Jonathan Krisel as a director and editor, who ended up as series director of Portlandia. (Meanwhile Pasternack was setting up Turner’s SuperDeluxe, where he worked with Peter Atencio, who would later direct Key & Peele). Such dot-connecting is a bit of a red herring, though—less because trends emerge in fits and spurts (Mr. Show ended in 1998; Portlandia debuted in 2011) than because Mr. Show’s influence is complicated by its ratings. It was a cult show at a time when, well, not everything was a cult show. Instrumental as it may have been to so many writers and producers, it does less to help us understand the other side of the coin—consumers, who took well over a decade to respond to those artists’ work with the enthusiasm we see today. Chapelle’s Show, probably the first major sketch show to consistently pair jokes to effective social commentary, deserves serious credit on that front. But the Lonely Island phenomenon speaks to another factor, one that Chapelle’s Show was too early to enjoy: virality. With SNL’s “Lazy Sunday,” which received over two million views in the week after it aired in 2005, YouTube brought sketch to hitherto unprecedented masses. This was a bit of a surprise to everyone involved; YouTube itself was still in its infancy, and NBC was less than pleased to see someone else profit from its viral success. Still, the lesson was self-evident to network execs and film students across the nation—there was a considerable audience for well-made, filmic sketch comedy. The only hitch? Most of that audience wasn’t watching it on TV.

It wasn’t cliché then but it’s cliché now: digital is king. Web sketch—the digital short, basically—is to thank for the likes of Derrick, BriTANick, Olde English, Good Neighbor, Picnic Face, and many other artists working in the same sensibility, if not with the same budgets, as the Lonely Island: intelligently silly, visually rich, always trusting the viewer to know what’s funny. Yet web sketch is more than just a proof of concept for young comics. Even for established shows on large networks, viral shorts are increasingly the only way to reach millions of consumers. This might be frustrating for networks and studios, who are only now cracking the code of online distribution—after it aired, NBC released “Lazy Sunday” through the iTunes Music Store; now we have Seeso—but is probably the ideal situation for sketch audiences. It may also be the truest expression of the form. A sketch, by definition, has a short lifespan and fulfills a brief contract: you pay attention, it makes you laugh, it’s over. There have been many genre-defining sketch shows throughout history, but sketch itself has always felt a bit weird in the context of a half hour- or an hourlong show. Surround any work of art with a dozen peers and it loses its potency; the best sketch is usually the sketch that gives you the freedom to walk away when it’s over. This freedom is built into online comedy.

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“I feel like comedy is getting shorter as a medium as drama is getting longer,” observed Sam Reich, President of Big Breakfast, the studio that makes original content for CollegeHumor (among other things, including TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, by Olde English alum Adam Conover). “I think people want to snack on their comedy and dine on their drama. But we’re still in an awkward stage of digital media where we—and I’m using the royal we here—have plenty of viewers but we’re not great at monetizing them.”

This speaks to the renewed popularity of the form—sketch is eminently snackable—as well as its continued life on television. The web might be the ideal home for sketch, but creators often can’t make their best work without studio resources. “TV budgets are still much healthier,” said Reich, “which means you can do more with sketch on TV than on the Internet. I do think there’s a future for sketch on TV—if it’s offering, like, something really specific or with a clever through-line, something to hook the audience that’s more than just one sketch after another—but whatever it is has to tie brilliantly into web promotion. And that’s true for more than sketch. Look at John Oliver segments that have broken out and performed gangbusters online. Even Key and Peele, I think, started inserting clips at the end of those viral segments—saying ‘Hey, you know we have a TV show, right?’”

There’s something else the internet has done for sketch, much less quantifiable than making it available to mass audiences but no less important. It’s old news by now that we’re in the midst of a second comedy boom, characterized not only by web series and podcasts galore but by audiences composed largely of comedy nerds. Now more than ever, the temperaments of the people making comedy is reflected right back at them by the people consuming it. Pasternack, for one, is thrilled about this. “I really do feel that this is the first generation where you can actually, in earnest, say that comedy is an art form as legitimate as literature or great theatre or painting,” he said. “We have an audience that’s more comedy-literate than it’s ever been, and I think that’s because of how much content is so readily available.”

Jonathan Stern, a writer and producer whose Abominable Pictures is behind Children’s Hospital, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, NTSF:SD:SUV and more, agrees. “For some reason comedy seems to evolve faster than any other genre,” he said. “I think it’s similar to fashion—people see something and they emulate it. Then someone else sees that and emulates it.” The web has amped up this feedback loop considerably, especially now that so many future Sterns and Pasternacks have entire catalogues of classic sketch—Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show—at their fingertips. “Something that keeps coming up in the Children’s Hospital writers room,” Stern recalled, “is someone would pitch a joke and David Wain would say ‘No, we can’t do that, The State did that.’ Once upon a time you could say, ‘Who cares! Who’s gonna look it up? It was original for us!’ But you can’t do that anymore. It’s almost like you have to work harder to make sure you’re not unintentionally plagiarizing.”

That feedback loop—driving producers to create new and different work—drives consumers to seek out new styles as well. A comedy-literate audience demands new comedy, better comedy, more experimental comedy with greater hunger than an audience that only tunes into this or that sitcom on this or that network. This is impossible to prove empirically but it passes the smell test: the more you consume of an art form, the more acquainted you become with its machinations. Then you get bored of what drew you to the form in the first place, and search instead for something rougher, riskier, with a new set of surprises. Rinse and repeat. Already we are seeing this thirst—not just for short comedy but for weird comedy—creep into traditional forms. Look no further than the recent crop of half-hour shows like Man Seeking Woman, Review and Drunk History for evidence that the old lines are eroding. Sketch has changed what we want and how we want it; what remains to be seen is how successfully sketch will adapt to our new demands.

This essay is the first in a two-part series; the next will contain a wildly speculative look at sketch’s future on television and digital platforms.




Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.

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